Men’s College Basketball: Frontier grads try to finish college careers strong at Fisher
Through becoming rising stars in high school to adjusting to playing at the next level in college and everything that has come in between — disappointments, successes and growth, Hamburg natives Jason Norsen and Grant Wrap have crossed those many roads as teammates.
And while the two big men, who seemed destined to have similar careers, have wound up on somewhat different paths, the Frontier High School graduates have done it together. Now seniors in their final season with the St. John Fisher men’s basketball team, the roommates and best of friends are looking for a joint effort in a big finish to their careers.
“There’s no way I’d rather do it,” Wrap said. “We know how to play together; there is a good chemistry. Even if we’re not on the court at the same time, it’s still awesome to have your best friend out there on the same team.”
Norsen has become the team’s go-to player — when the team needs a big bucket or play, it puts the ball in the hands of the 6-foot-6 center. After battling injuries over much of his college career, as he did as a senior at Frontier, Wrap is adjusting to his role as an energy player who is capable of adding some offense from inside as a forward or stepping out to hit a shot.
“We enjoy this,” Norsen said. “It was nice to be able to play another four years together because I know with him being out senior season (with Frontier) it was tough — we had a lot of expectations. And now that we were able to play another four years, it’s been great…seeing when the other succeeds is really cool.”
The two were reminded of their roots as they traveled for the first time to play at Hilbert College, a campus in Hamburg which is situated just a few minutes away from the high school where both played and excelled as varsity players since their sophomore seasons.
They led Frontier to a sectional final in their junior seasons and then despite Wrap missing his senior year due to two torn ACLs, the Falcons made the Class AA semifinals just to fall short again of their ultimate goal of winning a sectional title.
At the Hilbert Tip-Off Tournament, Fisher won both games it played Nov. 16 and 17, finishing off the four-game competition upending the host team 65-48. Fisher won the night before as well, 79-60 over Fredonia State.
Norsen was Most Valuable Player of the tournament, averaging 19.5 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, while shooting almost 82 percent from the floor. He shot 12 of 13 and netted 25 points in the win over Fredonia. Norsen led the Cardinals with 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots against Hilbert.
“We really don’t come this way very often to play, so it was good to see that a lot of family that doesn’t ordinarily get a chance to travel to Fisher got a chance to see us,” Norsen said. “It was great. I really enjoyed playing here.”
With Fisher holding on to a 16-15 lead about midway through the first half against Hilbert, Wrap hit consecutive three-pointers to start a 21-8 run to end the half. He added a bucket off the bench inside in the second half to finish with eight points.
“I remember playing Orchard Park here as a senior (during the playoffs) and we beat them. I didn’t even play but I thought the atmosphere was awesome,” Wrap said. “It’s great to come back and be part of a game here again.”
Norsen said the biggest challenge to adjusting to the college level was the change in physicality and fitness.
“The college game is a much different game so we both had to get stronger physically — that’s been key,” Norsen said. “Grant’s expanded out and has got his shot down pretty well. I’ve worked with our big man coach on facing up and going up-and-under.”
Wrap, who’s missed much of the past two seasons with injuries, has adjusted and become comfortable with his role.
“You’re not going to play 40 minutes in the college game – it’s just not going to happen, unless you’re Jay,” Wrap said, as he joked with his buddy. “It’s different. You have got to stay healthy, especially this year when it’s our last hurrah.”
While he continues to work with the team on defensive principals and rebounding, it’s clear that Norsen’s offensive game will be crucial to the success of Fisher. The polished forward really came into his own last year, averaging 15 points and nine rebounds, but a shoulder injury forced him to miss five of the team’s last seven Empire 8 Conference games.
It showed in the team’s final record as an end-of-the-season skid resulted in the program’s first losing season since 1987. This year, Fisher head coach Ron Kornaker is looking to Norsen as not only a finisher around the basket, but also for his ability to pass, defend and play in different roles such as chasing ball screens.
“We ask him to do a lot,” Kornaker said. “Jason should have a really good year, but he’s got to stay healthy, too. As he went, we went. I think we’re deeper this year and we have more guys that can help but it’s going to be important for us to keep him healthy. Really, he’s our guy.”
Norsen believes there is a good group of players on this team forming vital chemistry, even early in the season. He said that showed in how well Fisher defended against a good offensive team in Hilbert.
“It was tough missing the end of last year, so it’s great to come out here and get off to a great start, especially with how we finished last year and I wasn’t able to play,” Norsen said.
Wrap wasn’t able to play at the end of last year either, as he missed the last 15 games in his junior season due to sheared cartilage in his knee. The injury-marred Wrap also missed time as a sophomore.
Since tearing his ACL the summer before his senior year playing at the Empire State Games, Wrap has gone under the knife three times for surgery. He could have had a fourth operation last year, but opted not to because it may have cost him his senior season.
“I was talking to a teammate recently and he asked me how many surgeries I’ve had and I told him, ‘three in the last four years,’” Wrap said. “He said, ‘why are you still playing?’ After you hit two shots like that (in the Hilbert game) and you hear the crowd screaming, that’s why you still play. I told him later, ‘that’s why I still do it.’ It’s fun. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Instead, Wrap’s opted to play with a brace on his knee and some pain just to be out there with his teammates to enjoy the experience.
“Grant gave us a big lift today and I’m very happy,” Kornaker said. “Grant has had maybe the worst luck of any player. For him to even be here, to persevere — he’s in pain every day and is always icing, he’s become a really big leader for us. I’m disappointed for him in the sense that he hasn’t had a basketball career that he deserves. For him to be going through what he’s going through, he’s really important to us and I think the guys have a lot of respect for him.”
Kornaker added that Wrap is somewhat of an inspirational leader, to which the senior, who’s nicknamed the energy guys off the bench like himself, the “Goon Squad,” shrugged it off and joked, “Yeah something like that. Actually, I think I’m just the loudest. Everyone knows their role. I might be coming off the bench, but I’ll be hooting and hollering and trying to help the team in any way I can.”
This year, Fisher welcomed in another Frontier graduate in freshman Matt Taylor. Norsen said Taylor is going through the transition from playing high school to college, which he and Wrap both experienced. Taylor is playing with the JV team to start the season and not yet traveling with the varsity.
“He’s getting the hang of it,” Norsen said. “I think he’ll be a good player at Fisher is he stays.”
With the two wins, Fisher started 2-0 for only the second time in the last eight years. The last time the Cardinals started off 3-0 was in the 2004-2005 season. That year, Fisher was the last undefeated team in all of college basketball and finished with a 28-1 overall record.
“This weekend we found out we have a chance to be pretty good as long as we work hard,” noted Kornaker, who hopes to compete for an Empire 8 title and earn an NCAA berth though his team’s goal are a little more modest coming off of a tough 2011-12 season.
Fisher went for its third win on Nov. 28, hosting the opening round of the 47th Annual Wendy’s College Classic — the largest and longest-running in-season tournament in college basketball.
Although Kornaker realizes the two players from Hamburg may play different roles, he believes they will be equally important in how successful the team can be this season.
“I really am happy the way they developed as people and leaders,” Kornaker said of Norsen and Wrap. “They were great kids when they came to our program and now they’re young men who are doing a great job of leading our young guys.”